Le Notes #38: Ontological security theory in International Relations

This post serves as an introduction to the emerging canon of ontological security theory in International Relations.

Have you ever noticed why some states supposedly act “irrationally”? North Korea has long been touted as an example of an irrational actor. Despite having been punished multiple times by the international community for violating non-nuclear proliferation and being a general threat to both South Korea and Japan, it doesn’t seem like Kim Jong-un will relent anytime soon.

Or how about the United States, who despite having agreed to international conventions regarding the prohibition of torture and has long been seen as a champion for democratic values, suddenly allowed the use of torture in interrogating terrorists? Why do states contribute to humanitarian operations if it actually costs them?

Classical and structural theories of International Relations mostly posit security and survival as a vital national interest. To put it simply, states are motivated by the pursuit of security in conducting their relations. This is reflected in some of the fundamental theories that make the Realist canon, such as the security dilemma and the logic of nuclear deterrence. States, according to structural realists, are motivated by physical security.

But is it always like this? In some cases, states would act against supposed “rational logic” and get themselves embroiled in (with the benefit of hindsight) stupid strategic decisions. After 9/11, George Bush declared the beginning of the War on Terror, which as we have seen today, has far-reaching and maybe even irreparable consequences. Jennifer Mitzen (2006:344) [open access] argues states may not just act for the sake of their physical security; something much more abstract is at work here. Precluding structural reasons posited by neorealists such as Robert Jervis, Mitzen argues that states seek “…security not of the body but of the self, the subjective sense of who one is, which enables and motivates action and choice.” This is what would later be known as “ontological security”, or the security of the self.

What is ontological security?

In Mitzen’s definition of ontological security, there is an important theoretical unit that needs to be unpacked: the “self”.

To understand the “self”, we would need to draw from the literature of the Constructivist school of International Relations, specifically those dealing with the idea of “agency”, such as Alexander Wendt’s (1987) [paywall] initial critique of structural theory. Let me just briefly unpack what the “self” is.

In Constructivist literature, much emphasis is put on the creation of norms and identities. An identity is a malleable “role” that the state assigns itself (or is assigned to); while norms are  “collective expectations for the proper behavior of actors with a given identity” (Katzenstein, 1996 [book]). As an example, in Role Playing Games, players often assign “identities” to themselves: as healers, tanks, or damage. Having chosen (or assigned) a specific role, players are then expected to follow “norms” which could be implied in the game design or socially constructed by the community, e.g. a tank should always be up front soaking damage, while healers are supposed to prioritize healing tanks over damage dealers; tanks can wear plate armor, while damage dealers can only wear leather armor. If everyone does their job, the players can effectively play the game.

A similar parallel can be drawn to states, although it is not as simple as assigning roles in an RPG. State identities are rather fickle to deal with since the causal mechanisms related to the creation of identity are still debated, but it is generally accepted that states construct their identities through historical experiences, systemic experiences, and through relations with other states. During World War 2, Japan had assumed an identity of a warmongering nation, bent on creating the Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. However, following their explosive relations with the United States, Japan shifted to a more pacifist identity. Having assumed that identity, Japan then is expected (by both themselves and the outer world) to act according to pacifist norms which are explicitly enshrined in their Constitution. Any behaviour that deviates from these supposed norms are considered an “attack” on identity, as reflected in citizen protests and even formal diplomatic protests from Beijing, worrying of Japan’s remilitarization.

Now that we have unpacked what “identity” is, what does it have to do with ontological security? States, like individuals, also tend to prefer stability when it comes to their identities. As Mitzen (p. 342) writes, “Ontological security refers to the need to experience oneself as a whole, continuous person in time — as being rather than constantly changing — in order to realize a sense of agency.” Note that the concept of “agency” becomes crucial here. Agency is often thought as the capacity for a state or individual to exercise their freedom to decide for themselves. The ability for a state to create a rational decision is an example of agency.

However, agency may be compromised, especially in the face of a life-altering crisis. This is what Steele (2005 p. 526) calls “critical situations”, which he defines as a “radical disjuncture of an unpredictable kind… that threaten or destroy the certitudes of institutionalised routines.” These situations create anxiety for the state because it does not know how to respond to this event which challenges its self-identity. In responding to these events, states may resort to security-seeking behaviour which could manifest in a change of behaviour.

In the case of the U.S., this crisis was 9/11 [blog post], which came as a complete surprise to the U.S. It was completely novel both in terms of perpetrators and methods. Though intelligence agencies had a general idea of the threat the U.S. faced, they were not sure of the methods (and this is putting things lightly) that the terrorists would use. Second, nobody expected simple terrorists to be able to mount such a coordinated attack.

How do states seek ontological security?

The following diagram represents a simplified mechanism by which states seek ontological security.

A diagram of ontological security based on Mitzen and Steele

First, states establish routines, which Mitzen defines as “internally programmed cognitive and behavioral responses to information or stimuli (p. 346).” Routines are important because they limit the scope of uncertainty, which states constantly worry about.

Take for example, a complaint line. If you want to lodge a complaint about something, you usually have to go through a complaint line where you deal with customer service. The staff usually gives you a scripted answer (which, in their defense, lessens their cognitive load immensely) and they follow a scripted procedure. If your complaint is unordinary, you will be referred to a supervisor or manager.

Much like how people have routines that define them, states also have routine behaviour which also serves to lessen their cognitive load and allow them to conserve precious mental energy. Indonesia, for example, has routinized their behaviour towards Malaysia. In other words, both of us have similar shared expectations of each other’s behaviour. Malaysia appropriates something as their cultural heritage, Indonesia complains and threatens war, Malaysia relents, everything goes back to normal. Indonesia can do this because they already have a routine which builds a “basic trust” system (Mitzen, p. 346). A stable identity, therefore, depends on how predictable your relations are with neighbors.

While Mitzen’s account of routine is more sociological, Steele (2005)proposes a more “reflexive” approach. A state’s identity is not entirely determined by their neighbors, but more determined by how the state (or the apparatus of power, specifically) constructs and perpetuates narratives of the “self”. If the state has the capacity to create these narratives that are crucial to its identity, then the state is considered to have more “reflexive” capacity. It is also implied that some states have less reflexive capacity, thus leading to them being unable to reflexively reconstruct their identities after or during a critical situation.

While my explanation of routine seems simple enough, it is worth noting that the concept of “routine” itself is still contested by scholars.

Once states become familiar with routines, they begin attaching themselves to these routines. Since routines define who states are, they become attached to them. Furthermore, as routines lessen the state’s cognitive load, routines are seen as a way to sustain agency. Not that a routine is not just limited to the isolated actions of one state. Often, routine is built through a series of long and sustained interaction. In the next section, we’ll see why this is important.

Ontological security-seeking: the good and the bad

We’ve seen that states often seek more than just physical security. Instead, they also seek security of the self. This leads us to what Mitzen calls the “dilemma of ontological security”.

Earlier, we have established that routines, in a way, sustain agency. Once states have established routines, it is often difficult for them to snap out of them. This is the same as telling an alcoholic to go cold turkey. Recall the old Brooks from The Shawshank Redemption, who had been in imprisoned for 5 decades. He had been, in Red’s (Morgan Freeman’s character) words, “institutionalized”. Being outside of prison had affected his sense of agency. Inside Shawshank, Brooks was a respected man; outside, he was just an old ex-convict. He tried his best to “fit” into society by working and adapting, yet he was simply incapable of dealing with his own ontological insecurity. He wanted to return to his old identity, but he could not do that. This led to Brooks developing severe depression until he finally hung himself.

Now, while it is unlikely for states to develop depression, when threatened, states will try to seek ontological security. This does not necessarily lead to conflict. States may seek to stabilize their identity through the pursuit of better relations, such as joining a regional community or contributing to humanitarian operations. However, when it leads to conflict, states may head towards a downward spiral in which they assume their identity lies only in conflict. The absence of conflict would only put them in a state of ontological insecurity.

Returning to 9/11. It is worth noting that the global environment had shifted. The U.S. had just emerged out of the Cold War, its war machine still programmed to fight yesterday’s wars. It had a diplomatic ‘playbook’ that it adhered to; sadly it was still written in Cold War language. Facing the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. fell back on its routine: it quickly searched for someone to blame (Iraq) and began deploying the tricks in the Cold War ‘playbook’. Most notable of these plays were the “us against them” rhetoric and the show of U.S. military force which would permeate U.S. strategic thinking for the next decade. In addition to these routines, the U.S. also violated international norms regarding the prohibition of torture as exemplified in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison, and not to mention the use of ‘enhanced interrogation methods’ by the CIA.

Hindsight tells us that the U.S. made a stupid strategic decision. Regardless, the U.S. was acting in an ontological security-seeking manner. The 9/11 attack was not just a physical attack; it was an attack on the self. The greatest nation on earth taken by surprise by a dozen terrorists with only one plane? How shameful! This further compounds on the fact that the U.S. was still in search of a role in post-Cold War international relations. In response to 9/11, the U.S. sought to seek ontological security. The 9/11 retaliation could then be understood as not just a material response to material damage, but also an immaterial response to immaterial damage to the self. Without the benefit of hindsight, U.S. policymakers decided it was best to address the threat using their usual “routines”.

On the other hand, states may also engage in beneficial ontological security-seeking behaviour. Now that I think of it, Japan under Koizumi is a suitable representation of a country who had been experiencing an identity crisis. In 1992, following criticism of Japan’s reluctance to contribute in war efforts in the Gulf (in Japan’s defense, it did renounce the use of force), Koizumi enacted the Peacekeeping Operations Law. This move gave a degree of leniency in the overseas deployment of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, which would later cement Japan’s role as an international peacekeeper. Here, we see that circa 1992, Japan faced a “crisis” in its own constructed identity. Specifically, it could not reconcile its supposed peace-loving identity with increased demands from their allies to participate in peacekeeping. The Peacekeeping Law was then proposed to reconcile this disconnect, thus relieving Japan of their anxiety.


Ontological security posits itself as a complement to Realist theory in the way it views the motivation why states seek security. By adding an immaterial dimension (the “self”), ontological security theory shows a lot of promise in enhancing IR theory. There are, however, some limitations and gray areas that still need to be conceptually clarified. For starters, what is a “routine”? Furthermore, is it conceptually okay to anthropomorphize states? How can we empirically test the theory’s assumptions, especially because we’re dealing with intangible (but not non-observable) variables? There’s a lot of work to be done, but the theory may provide an enriched explanation for state behavior.

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